From the time Peyton was pretty little, she travelled a good bit without Marc and me. First it was with her grandparents, then with her high school and youth group, then college, and finally, on her own. What started out as overnights and weekends became trips that were days or weeks or even months long. And she went far away—all over the country with her grandparents in their RV, Ethiopia and France in high school, Tanzania and Kenya in college, and all over Europe and the Middle East after she graduated from Miami.
But one thing about her departures has never changed in all that time, even now when she leaves our house to go back to her own home in Virginia after a visit. Whether she’s leaving from the airport or the driveway, Marc and I stand and watch until she’s entirely out of our sight. Even then, even after she’s turned the corner of our street or is lost in the crowd of the airport concourse, we aren’t quite ready to quit watching. We keep looking toward where we last saw her. It’s only when the neighbors start wondering if we’ve locked ourselves out of the house or the TSA starts thinking we might be a threat to national security that we finally turn away.
It wouldn’t be surprising if our neighbors or the TSA agents asked us the same question that the two men asked the apostles: “Why are you standing there?” And it’s a good question to ask of ourselves on this Ascension Sunday. Because our answer to that question shapes our discipleship.
A lot happens in our Scripture passage before we get to the messengers’ question. First Luke summarizes what he had written in his gospel. Jesus had begun his mission of teaching and healing. After his crucifixion and death and resurrection, Jesus had appeared to the disciples on a number of occasions, speaking with them, teaching them, eating with them, even cooking for them, and commissioning them to continue his mission in his name. He tells them something about what to do and expect in the coming days. And then—poof! Just like that, he’s gone. Lifted up into heaven in a cloud, taken out of their sight as they watched. I imagine the disciples just standing there, motionless, rooted to the ground where just moments before Jesus had been talking with them.
But as they stand there—dumbstruck, mouths agape, gazing toward heaven—two men in white appear. Whenever we encounter beings dressed in white in Scripture, we can assume they are heavenly messengers. And as they had done with the women at the tomb, they ask a pointed question: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?”
We don’t know what the disciples’ answer to the question was. Maybe they would have said they were standing there, looking toward heaven, out of longing and renewed grief over the loss of Jesus’ physical presence. Oh, Jesus had tried to prepare them for this moment. He had explained that he would be leaving to return to his Father, and that God’s promised Holy Spirit would come to them—could only come to them—after his physical departure.
But, we all know what it’s like to understand that a loved one will be leaving us and still not be completely prepared for the actual loss. So maybe the disciples were simply standing there, engulfed in their sadness at Jesus’ departure, but also holding onto the hope that maybe he’d turn around and come back, not at some point in the distant future, but now—for another hug and kiss, another smile, another word of assurance and love.
Or, their answer could have been that they expected Jesus to return quickly to restore Israel, in the way they still expected from the Messiah—to take Israel back by force from the Romans and all those who stood in the way of God’s kingdom being fulfilled on earth. We’ve had two thousand years to get used to the idea that Jesus may not return any time soon, and to think about what kind of victory Jesus secured. The apostles didn’t have the benefit of that. So they may have been standing there in a state of expectation and anticipation that Jesus would still achieve the political and military victory they had grown up expecting, and that he would do it soon.
Maybe their answer was that they were standing there because they didn’t know what else to do. Maybe they felt like they were in a kind of limbo, waiting for Jesus’ promises to be fulfilled, wondering how long they would have to hang out in Jerusalem before they could start their work of being Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem and beyond.
One last possibility: maybe they answered that they weren’t actually watching Jesus, but were searching the heavens for the place he said he was making for them. Maybe their eyes weren’t fixed so much on the departing Jesus as on the destination they all hoped to arrive at one day. That’s not so uncommon among Christians even today—focusing more on where we’ll spend our lives after death than on how we’ll spend our lives before death.
We don’t know how the disciples answered the messengers’ question, and we also don’t know why the messengers asked it. But, we can let the question challenge us to think about why we stand and look searchingly toward heaven. Because how we answer that question will determine how we live out our faith. As we think about Jesus’ ascension, we can ask ourselves, “Why are we standing here, looking up to heaven?”
There’s nothing wrong with longing to see Jesus’ face and anticipating our eternal home. But, if that’s our answer to the question, we can be tempted to ignore the world around us. We can get so focused on life after death that life before death becomes something of an afterthought. But, Jesus spoke much more frequently about how to live on earth now than about what it will be like to live in heaven later. Jesus clearly directs our gaze to the people and needs of the world around us now.
If our answer is that we’re looking for a military-style conqueror, we need to remind ourselves that Jesus’ victory was not—and will not be—achieved by force. Jesus won’t be holding parades of armies and armaments when he comes again. But we can still find ourselves looking for that kind of Messiah; many of our hymns use that kind of imagery. If that’s our answer to the question, two things are possible.
First, we can become passive, waiting for Jesus to come and fix everything for us. We can get lackadaisical, forgetting everything that the prophets said and that Jesus affirmed—that we must resist evil, injustice, and oppression wherever we find it. We can’t just wait for Jesus to come and dismantle the institutions and systems that keep people poor, sick, homeless, hungry, ignorant, marginalized, and powerless. Jesus didn’t say, “Let my sheep go hungry until I get back.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep,” and sometimes feeding his sheep means taking on the systems that keep them hungry for prosperity, dignity, and justice.
On the other hand, the “military Messiah” answer can incite us to try to force others to believe. We may become like Judas, so anxious to make things work out the way we think they should, that we actually betray Jesus’ mission of extending God’s healing and reconciling love and grace to others.
Maybe our answer is that we are stuck where we are, immobilized by uncertainty. We are waiting for Jesus to give us clearer instructions. If that’s how we’re feeling, we can do what the disciples did. They returned to Jerusalem as Jesus told them to. Together, they gathered in the upper room. But they didn’t just passively sit there. They engaged in active waiting. They prayed together. They studied Scripture together. They followed the instructions Jesus had given, until the Holy Spirit came as promised.
Perhaps it was during that time of praying and studying and waiting together that the disciples began to understand why Jesus ascended while they were standing there: so that they would be eyewitnesses to the Ascension. They were to be eyewitnesses, as Jesus returned to his Father, to sit at God’s right hand as the Messiah—the Savior and King of all the world. They were to be eyewitnesses to the fact that, although he was not physically with them, Jesus was—and is—alive and acting in the world. They were to be eyewitnesses to his departure, which he had said had to happen in order to make the Holy Spirit’s arrival possible. Maybe they realized that the best answer to the question “Why are you standing there, looking into heaven?” was that they were to be eyewitnesses to the ascension, so that they could testify to what they had seen.
Our answer can be the same as theirs. We have seen Jesus, alive and working in our lives. We know Jesus to be the Lord of all Creation, even in this world of violence and chaos. We have experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit, who transforms and empowers us, and who will do same for anyone who asks. We may not have witnessed the Ascension event itself, but we are witnesses to its reality, its consequences, and its power. Like the disciples on the day of the ascension, we can go from this place where we are standing to be witnesses to our living Lord. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young